Setting a date for the start of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan conveys “a sense of urgency” to Kabul that American forces would not stay indefinitely, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said.
Defending US President Barack Obama’s decision to combine a troop buildup in Afghanistan with a target date of July 2011 for the beginning of a drawdown, Gates said the Kabul government had to understand the US military commitment was not open-ended.
“The piece of this that people need to keep in mind that’s different from Iraq is our need to communicate a sense of urgency to the Afghans of their need to begin to accept responsibility,” Gates told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, drawing a contrast to a similar buildup in Iraq two years ago.
In a separate television interview, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Afghans wanted to be in charge of their country’s security “sooner, rather than later.”
But he said it would take two years to train Afghan forces to the point where they can lead operations in many parts of the country.
“By the end of five years term of the current government, we plan to lead operations for the security of the Afghan people in all of Afghanistan, in the whole country. That is our objective,” Karzai told CNN.
Echoing comments made at congressional hearings last week, Gates said the US would remain deeply engaged with Afghanistan even after US forces eventually hand over security to Afghan forces.
“We are not going to abandon Afghanistan like we did in 1989. But the nature of the relationship will change,” Gates said.
As the US military presence is reduced, political and economic assistance would take on a bigger part of the relationship, he said.
Gates and other top officials renewed their defense of Obama’s strategy on television political talk shows after the president’s plan — unveiled last week — met with criticism on both the right and the left.
Republicans slammed the July 2011 date as a dangerous signal to allies and Afghan insurgents while Obama’s fellow Democrats questioned the troop surge.
Gates rejected former US president Dick Cheney’s charges that the drawdown starting date would embolden the Taliban, saying insurgents were well aware of public opinion in Western countries and always counted on outlasting US-led forces.
“Whether you announce a date or not, they can tell as easily from reading the news media about political support for these kinds of undertakings themselves and they always believe that they can outlast us,” he said.
“The reality is though, what are they going to do? Are they going to get more aggressive than they already are? We don’t think they can,” Gates said.
“If they lie low, that’s great news for us because it gives us some huge opportunities in Afghanistan,” he said.
The surge of 30,000 additional US troops would make a difference in the fight against insurgents in the next 18 months and enable the training of more Afghan troops and police, allowing the US military “to begin this gradual process of transitioning security,” he said.
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